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You may know him as a comedian, film director, actor, Oscar prankster or one time star of a Moro bar advert. You may know him under two different names. SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam talked to Taika Cohen (or Waititi) about following his interests in the Wellington cultural scene, and mysteriously being pretty damn good at everything he lends his hand too.
If you follow Wellington’s cultural scene there are some names around that most people agree on. Members of Flight of the Conchords and the Phoenix Foundation, for example, are but a few of the people making some waves around the place. Another artist who’s making an even bigger splash, if slightly below the radar, is Taika Cohen (also known as Waititi) whose feature film début, Eagle vs Shark, is set to be released early in the new year. Featuring Jermaine Clement (from the Conchords), talented actor (and Cohen’s girlfriend) Loren Horsley and indeed music from the Phoenix Foundation, the film is set to showcase some of New Zealand’s up and coming talent. Not bad for a guy who modestly said, “I’ve only been making films for three years and it was only really because it was a little whim that I thought, ‘oh maybe I can make a short film.’ That kind of built up and now I’m a film director. It’s weird.”
Cohen’s film career took a massive boost with the success of his short film Two Cars, One Night. The touching film, which centred around first love of children waiting for their parents outside a Te Kaha pub, won a short film award at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. It was also nominated for best short film at the Oscars. Cohen was “pleasantly surprised. I’m really happy with it. I always thought after I cast the two kids that the film would be good. Which was all that really mattered. As long asit wasn’t a shit film then I’ve done well. And then, when I finished the film and watched it a few times, I thought, ‘wow, those kids are really amazing’. But then I still had no idea that it would do as well as it did. It was just a small wave that got more and more power, which did what it did.” On a side note, Cohen’s also highly critical of what’s happening to Te Kaha (Cohen grew up in a small town in the East Coast), a gorgeous little town in the Bay of Plenty where people are “putting houses there and putting big iron gates around their houses. It’s horrible, just these paranoid rich people going down to buy their slice of paradise and having to barricade themselves into their paradise. It’s really fucked up.”
His follow-up short film Tama Tu focused on young Maori Battalion soldiers hiding out and being forced to amuse themselves out of boredom. His feature followed, made with Film Commission and American backing (it was developed at a highly sought-after Sundance scriptwriting workshop and is signed up by Miramax). He admits it was an enjoyable experience. “It’s like making a movie with your friends, and you know having fun along the way because it’s meant to be a comedy.” The film may reflect the type of comedy he’s interested in too, comedies like The Office and Welcome to the Dollhouse, “things that are a bit more subtle, and more painful really, it’s comedy that comes from human suffering.” When I ask him about how he feels about the film, Cohen shrugs and says, “I’ve seen it far too many times to really know any more. I’m just happy to let it be now. I’ve got to move on to some other projects now but yeah. I’m really happy with it.”
That seems to sum up Cohen: extremely laidback, yet seeming to have project after project on the go. Indeed, for many Wellingtonians, he’s probably known as Taika Cohen: actor, standup comedian, filmmaker, artist. “I’m more interested in experimenting with different mediums and not restricting myself to one thing, for instance, art and acting. I’m not sure if it’s about wanting to do lots and lots of things because I can. It’s more about my lack of concentration and my lack of ability to properly focus in on one thing forever. I just lose my train of thought a lot.”
It’s also a good way of keeping himself interested in things. “For a while when I was younger I thought I just had to find one thing and stick to that and be good at that. And then I realised that it wouldn’t really make me happy doing that, so if something takes my interest I’m just going to address it and try to do something with it. Life is a certain amount of time and I’ve got to spend that amount of time trying to fulfill as many of those things that come and tempt me.”
This means an extensive career in film is not a given. “It’s not something I really want to do for the rest of my life. I’m probably going to run out of ideas and get bored with film within the next five years. Who knows what I’ll keep doing? There’ll probably be something else I become really interested in.” However, Cohen’s in no real rush to force things out. “You know there’s the thing where as a young artist you feel that you have to do something by a certain age, especially for visual artists, you have to do a show, your solo show before you’re twenty, like, right now. I think that knowing what I know now, a lot of things can wait. You don’t have to do everything right now. You can start something and leave it ten years and finish it.” It isn’t hard to see that most artists often feel the desire to make that mark as young as possible. The classic story is Orson Welles the man who was a certified genius across a number of mediums and struck it big with Citizen Kane at the age of 25 (though you can substitute Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett if you wish). “Unfortunately for Orson Welles, he had a brilliant start and then a really long bad depressing end. Everyone’s journey is different. You just can’t force anything. I’m learning a lot to just relax and to let whatever happens happen.”
Cohen initially didn’t really know what he was going to do when he came to Victoria in the mid-90s. “I did what everyone else did which was I think English 105, and basically just crammed in papers that you do. I wanted to do that drama degree because it was only a two-year degree but you had to do a first year to get credits. So I did that. It turned out to be a really fun degree not so much the drama part of it, but in the third year all I had to do was basically do the two drama papers and then I could fill up the rest with credits from anything I was interested in. It was fantastic, I did some religion papers and managed to get some design courses credited to my BA so it was really great. It was a mishmash of things, which I think university should be about.” More importantly, he became friends with a number of people he continues to work with. After Vic, he started making a name in acting. He appeared in Scarfies and also became recognisable as The-Surfing-Without- Moro guy (he grimaces when reminded about it).
Cohen acknowledges working in Wellington has been extremely useful. “I’ve associated with lots of really cool people in different facets of art. It’s probably easier to get things done, and also you get a bit more inspired when you mix with that group of people.” He’s however critical of the Council and rich developers trying to cash in on Wellington’s “scene”. “I think Wellington’s probably the best place to be an artist, but I think now it’s going to be harder because the Council and people associated with the Council are buying up all the properties, all the cool properties, and turning them into ugly corrugated iron apartment things and ruining it. It’s really weird, and I think it’s been like this forever, but artists in a place will go to a certain area because it’s cheap and because they can all hang out together. Then the rich people see that and get attracted to it. The developers come in and go ‘ok we’re going to buy up these things and turn them into apartments and they attract the rich people by going ‘this is where the artists hang out, it’s the cool cultural part of town, come over here’ but when they get there’s no artists left because they’ve killed them all.” It’s not something that can be forced either by token “artist areas” either.
Despite all this, finding success through comedy shows like the Humourbeast (with Clement) has helped Cohen break through. The plan is to make it into a TV show, but with the Conchords writing a show for HBO and Cohen’s film, there hasn’t really been any time. “It’s just the timing. If there was a good 6 months where we didn’t have anything to do, I think we’d get it done pretty easily. I don’t think I’ve got any time to do something like that until the end of next year, which is a weird way to live for me, because I havenever ever thought that far ahead. Only maybe a month ahead, and now I’m starting to get booked up for the next year. It’s scary.” New Zealand comedy is indeed going pretty damn well. “I think we’re getting slowly over the [cringe]. You get those people saying ‘oh, New Zealand comedy sucks, New Zealand comedy on TV is even worse… blah blah blah’. It’s usually people who don’t know anything because they don’t see any real New Zealand comedy.”
“In reality, people with money don’t care about making art, they want to make their money back. They want to be seen as supporting the arts, but they want something back.” Taika Cohen
However this doesn’t mean there’ll also be an explosion in New Zealand film. “It’s very difficult, because with film, unlike all the other things, film’s got millions of dollars attached to it, it’s a safety game. They don’t want to lose money so you’re not going to get the most interesting and innovative risky scripts made because of that word risk. It’ll be too hard to sell to people the idea that they’re making art. In reality, people with money don’t care about making art, they want to make their money back. They want to be seen as supporting the arts, but they want something back.” Cohen’s managed to escape the dreaded concept of schmoozing, unlike what most people assume exists in the film industry. “I don’t have to do any schmoozing but you never really get into those sort of situations. I think New Zealanders can see right through it, that’s the thing. I don’t think any of that stuff works on New Zealanders. You get over there and they have a certain way of talking. It kinds of sounds like schmoozing but often they’ll be really, ‘excited’ about your project, but they use a way of speaking that most Americans respond to in a positive way that most would just think is so fake, is so impersonal, it’s like ‘who are you talking to? I’m right here'”. Cohen, did though, enjoy his time at the Oscars. “I just liked the fact that I got to go because I thought it was really hilarious. It was a really interesting thing to see first hand. I mean America’s already a crazy place filled with crazy people. But [the Oscars was] seeing the most craziest of them all hanging out at a party together”.
While people may get confused over what his last name is (Cohen is his Mum’s last name, and Waititi is his Dad’s – he used Waititi because he was filming Two Cars, One Night in the “Waititi part of the country” and the name stuck with the film’s success), he’s sure to become a major New Zealand artistic success. But judging from his schizophrenic talent in every area he tries, who knows, it might be in fashion design.